Kyle Busch gets last laugh at Bristol
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- From driver introductions to his victory celebration, Kyle Busch tried to make friends with the notorious Bristol Motor Speedway fans on Sunday.
Maybe they should consider taking him up on it, seeing as how he's the only winner they've known in the past five NASCAR national series races here.
Drivers were asked to introduce themselves on the public address system for the Jeff Byrd 500. No sooner had Busch taken the microphone than thunderous boos cascaded down on him from the 160,000-seat grandstands, which surprisingly were barely half full for this race.
"What's the matter?" he asked them. "Can't we all just be friends?"
Then they really let him have it, in the negative.
Doing nothing villainous all afternoon, Busch held off Carl Edwards on the last three restarts, and drove away after the final one, to win the race named in honor of the beloved BMS president who died last October of brain cancer.
After getting booed some more during his usual exaggerated victory bows to the crowd, Busch singled out this race more than the previous four in a row he'd won here.
"First and foremost it's cool to have the race titled after Jeff Byrd," Busch said. "We all know what he's done for us here at Bristol and what he's done for the sport in general, and how much he meant to all of us. So winning the Jeff Byrd 500 is special to me and the Joe Gibbs Racing team."
The win plus a Nationwide victory on Saturday made for another Busch sweep at Bristol, but this time there were only two victories to be had here. Last August he swept three, in Trucks, Nationwide and Cup.
"There's nothing that's not fun about this place," he said.
But what about the fans?
"I don't know about the fans," he said when asked whether they should consider an attitude adjustment. "I don't know if it's that easy to change opinions sometimes. But it's definitely fun to have a good attitude about things and have good success out of it.
"Last night after the Nationwide race I had an appearance [outside the track]. ... There was a ton of people out there, man. They all had a good time. It's funny: There were like 250 or 300 M&M jackets just in a glob. So you're like, 'Man, where are all these people when driver intros go on?' But they were up against 160,000 people."
Hardly. It was more like 100,000, to be generous. Whether it was soaring gasoline prices, fans saving their money in a tough economy for the more popular night race here in August or just because they're tired of Kyle Busch dominating here, the stands and the campgrounds were more sparsely filled than in recent memory.
Some fans feel speedway officials spoiled the notoriously slam-bang half-mile track by repaving and widening it in 2007. It's no longer a one-groove track, which was the cause of many a wreck and temper tantrum over the years.
"Unfortunately we didn't see a very packed house today," Busch said. "I hate that. The old Bristol was the old Bristol. We don't have that anymore. It made for some interesting moments, when guys would beat and bang a little bit more, rough each other up a little bit more.
"But with the new Bristol it's really cool for all the drivers, because we have a racetrack that we can race on. We don't have to get into each other to pass each other. There's room here to breathe a little bit.
"I guess there's less drama, per se. And I like less drama because I like less to deal with."
And Sunday's race was hardly a snoozer. Busch and Edwards dueled to the end, with Jimmie Johnson hanging close behind in case the first two wrecked each other.
Unfortunately we didn't see a very packed house today. I hate that. The old Bristol was the old Bristol. We don't have that anymore.” -- Kyle Busch
Johnson led the most laps, 164, but a bobble in his pits during a caution left him fourth for a restart with 65 to go, and he never recovered.
"The race off the pit road was what got us," Johnson said. "Track position was everything."
Conversely, "our guys on that last pit stop [with 50 to go] won this race coming out of the pits first," Busch said. "I don't know if I could have got by Carl [had Edwards come out first, which he narrowly missed]. Carl was good."
Said Edwards, "I thought I'd be able to race with him harder for the last 15-20 laps, but he took off and I was a little loose and I just couldn't get back to him to race."
At one point, Edwards "gave me a little shot going into Turn 1," Busch said. "But we gathered it up."
After that, Busch drove away.
While he was still on Busch's bumper, Edwards figured it was too early to employ the bump-and-run tactic that has been so common here, where the second-place driver shoves the leader up the track and out of the way.
Did he wish he'd gone ahead with it?
"Yeah, I should have," Edwards said.
"You should have done it," cracked Johnson, who was hoping to get "a gift" in the form of a Busch-Edwards wreck.
"We were running so hard at that point in the run," Edwards said, "I don't know that you could really bump a guy and just move him. You might cause a big wreck; you might wreck yourself.
"Jimmie was right behind us. I thought maybe it would give him the win, so I figured we'd let it calm down and we'd just race.
"It ended up," Edwards concluded, "that the fastest car at the end won the race."
Somehow the Bristol fans would have to deal with that.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.